Saltwater vs Freshwater Pearls – What is the Difference?

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Saltwater and freshwater are two varieties of pearls that are categorized based on where they originated. While modern advances in technology are narrowing down the differences between these two, traditionally, saltwater and freshwater pearls have quite distinct characteristics in terms of appearance, price, and durability.

If you are tossing between these two and are unsure which to choose, keep reading. We’re going to compare saltwater vs freshwater pearls and outline which we think is the better option.

Saltwater vs Freshwater Pearls – Origin

Saltwater pearls are formed by oysters in oceans of places such as Australia, Tahiti, Indonesia, and Thailand. The growth period for saltwater pearls is often longer than for freshwater pearls and is more costly. Many of the most sought-after pearl varieties, such as Akoya, South Sea, and Tahitian are saltwater pearls.

Freshwater pearls, on the other hand, are grown in various types of mussels in sources of freshwater such as rivers and lakes. These are mainly cultivated in China, although Japan and the US are also leading suppliers.

Most people wrongly believe that freshwater pearls are cultured (cultivated by humans) whereas saltwater pearls are natural. This is not true, as saltwater pearls are also cultured. Natural pearls formed without human aid are extremely rare in nature and very expensive. Most of the pearls you find on the market are farm-grown specimens.

In case you were wondering, cultured pearls are created by inserting an irritant inside the host creature. As the oyster or mollusk tries to lessen its discomfort, it coats the irritant layer upon layer of nacre, which becomes the pearl. The longer the process, the better and bigger the pearl.

Related Article: A comprehensive guide to buying pearls

Saltwater vs Freshwater – Nacre Quality

Freshwater Pearl Bracelet
Freshwater pearl bracelet by Silver Rain Silver. See it here.

As I’ve mentioned above, saltwater pearls take longer to form than freshwater. They are grown over several years, and because the irritant inserted into the oyster is quite large, the nacre that forms to cover it is quite thin and of better quality.

By contrast, freshwater pearls are created much faster often within a span of several months, although this varies depending on the farm. Another difference is that the inserted nucleus is much smaller and as a result, freshwater pearls are almost completely made of nacre. You might think this is a good thing. After all, the stuff is what pearls are made of, right? Interestingly, the answer is no. Although freshwater pearls have more nacre in their makeup, they have been inferior to saltwater pearls in other ways.

So how does this affect the durability of the pearl?

Freshwater pearls are less prone to chipping or flaking as they have a thicker nacre coating whereas the thinner nacre layer of saltwater pearls can get damaged more easily.

It’s important to note that these differences are not as obvious today as they used to be as pearl-cultivating processes continue to improve.

Saltwater vs Freshwater – Size and Shape

Saltwater pearls used to be much larger than freshwater ones, due to their longer growth period. However, today, this difference is not as noticeable as freshwater pearls are also often allowed to grow to bigger sizes.

Regarding shape, less than 5% of freshwater pearls are perfect spheres, which is the desired shape for pearls. The rest are either oval, button-shaped, baroque, or semi-baroque in shape. By contrast, saltwater pearls are generally more spherical but can also be found in lumpy, baroque, and other irregular shapes and sizes.

The reason for this is the type of nucleus that is implanted in the pearl-producing animal. For freshwater pearls, a piece of mussel tissue is used as the irritant whereas saltwater pearls have a bead nucleus, resulting in a better spherical shape.

Baroque pearl earrings
Baroque freshwater pearl earrings by Lisha Pearl Jewelry. See them here.

Interestingly, of late irregularly shaped pearls, like the ones used for these baroque pearl earrings, have been rising in popularity and are a popular option for modern jewelry designs.

Saltwater vs Freshwater – Luster and Color

Luster is an important distinction between these two varieties of pearls. Saltwater pearls have a superior luster and glossy appearance to their freshwater counterparts. This increased luster is one reason most customers prefer saltwater pearls.

Take a look at these two gorgeous strands of pearls. One of these is a freshwater strand and the other is a saltwater pearl necklace (of the Akoya variety). Can you tell which is which?

Akoya Cultured Pearl Necklace
Akoya pearl necklace by Continental Pearl. See it here.
Genuine freshwater pearl necklace
Genuine freshwater pearl necklace by Silver Rain Silver. See it here.

Regarding color, saltwater pearls are generally white and cream colored, although black and gold are two popular varieties, like this classic Golden South Sea ring.

Golden South Sea Pearl Ring
Golden south sea pearl ring by Midnight Pearl Store. See it here.

Freshwater pearls can be found in a range of colors, including white, cream, pink, and lilac.

Saltwater vs Freshwater – Value and Price

There are several reasons why saltwater pearls are considered more valuable than freshwater pearls. Compare the prices of these two pairs of similar-sized pearl studs. As you can see, the Akoya saltwater pearls are much more expensive than the freshwater ones.

Akoya pearls stud earrings
Akoya pearls studs by The Pearl Source. See them here.
Freshwater pearls stud earrings
Freshwater pearls studs by The Pearl Source. See them here.

For one thing, saltwater pearls are not as abundant as freshwater pearls. Harvesting them takes longer and as oysters are smaller than mussels, they don’t create as many pearls. A single freshwater mollusk can produce up to 50 pearls at a time, whereas oysters only produce up to 3!

For another, saltwater pearls have better luster and appearance making them highly desirable and more sought after. This greater demand for saltwater pearls translates to higher prices for the consumer.

Which Should I Choose?

Most people prefer saltwater pearls due to their higher luster and beauty, but today, freshwater pearls are almost just as lustrous and equally beautiful. If budget is a concern for you, opting for freshwater pearls is a sensible choice. You will still be able to get beautiful pearls at a much lower cost. What’s more, these pearls are also more durable.

The main deciding factors will be budget, appearance, and durability and you will have to find a compromise between these aspects that you are comfortable with. Because the differences between the two types of pearls are quite minute, we recommend freshwater pearls as a great place to begin your collection of pearl jewelry if you are on a budget.

Looking to add pearls to your jewelry collection? Check out Amazon’s impressive range of pearls.

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